With as many as four generations bumping elbows in the same office, a lack of understanding and empathy between groups can generate serious workplace tension that can alienate co-workers. That is why experts say that getting into a young mind-set through mentorships and relationship-building can help older workers better identify with young co-workers and—inevitably—younger bosses, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal.
Thinking young can also offer valuable insight into emerging millennial workplace and customer trends that can help to extend careers, especially since millennials—people born between 1981 and the early 2000s—will make up 36 percent of the American workforce in 2014, estimates the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation.
A case in point is Shona Sabnis, who at 42 is one of “older” workers of New York office of public-relations firm Edelmen. Though she prides herself on being able to get along with most people, she has sometimes been puzzled by the actions of her 20-something co-workers who, in turn, don’t understand why the senior vice president of public affairs likes to distribute physical newspaper clippings.
While dealing with a situation at the office, Sabnis was told by a junior co-worker that she should be handling her client differently, the article noted. It wasn’t phrased as a suggestion, which surprised her since she knew the co-worker wasn’t that familiar with the account.
She later enlisted a 26-year-old co-worker to help her to get a better sense of where her young co-workers are coming from. He told her about the motivations of individual co-workers and what their expectations were. “I found that I was projecting my reality when I was that age on them and their reality seems very different,” Sabnis said.
“I don’t always assume anymore that I know what they want,” she added. “Now I ask them if I need to know.” She feels that she is now able to deal with young co-workers with more understanding.
Here, according to the article, is some guidance on the topic of “thinking young” for older workers to consider in the New Year:
Start with a clean slate. Don’t let stereotypes color your perception of young co-workers. People tend to act on their beliefs, which makes it difficult to establish productive workplace relationships if you automatically believe, for example, that all 20-somethings are narcissistic or lazy, said Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University who’s written books on successful aging and decision-making.
“People think they should be compromising or tolerant of certain behaviors but, instead, we should be understanding,” Langer told the newspaper. “It is more important to be mindful of an individual’s motivations and make sense of why people do what they do. You might drive behind somebody that is driving slow and be angry because they’re old, but in reality, that individual might be driving as fast as they are capable and it could be dangerous to do otherwise. If you saw what they saw, you’d probably respond the same way.”
Participate in a reverse mentorship or group training. You can catch up on things that you feel like you’re falling behind on through such an arrangement. Many companies, for example, will pair an older employee with a younger employee who can offer fresh insight on technology, communication styles and social media, as well as offer inside insight into the needs of other young co-workers, the article pointed out.
“The reverse mentorship can also give insight into the new generation of buyers and decision makers who are also millennials,” explained Lisa Orrell, a workplace consultant from San Jose, Calif., who specializes in generational management. “Social-media channels [are] how they are all communicating, collaborating and doing research on what to buy.”
Keep an open mind about organizational shifts that accommodate new modes of working. Millennials enjoy working in collaborative and decentralized work environments, for example, that de-emphasize protocol and hierarchy, the article noted. This may include a more open workplace culture that encourages frequent communication and unprecedented outspokenness.
Don’t dwell on the past at the office or talk about how things used to be. That is unless you’re using past accomplishments to bolster present and future goals, said Russ Hovendick, president of Client Staffing Solutions in Sioux Falls, S.D. “Your young co-workers are in the early stages of their careers and motivated by what’s happening now,” he said. “They’re not thinking about retirement—nor should you out loud when you’re trying to put yourself into a relevant context.” You want to relate to workers that you have plans for the future and aren’t just looking for someplace to hole up until retirement.